Dear Mr Ruback,
I am writing in the hope that this last minute process to collect student feedback is not just a formality. The surprising urgency for introduction for Class 2008 and the lack of transparency in the process until very recently, does suggest that that this process is not truly relevant and that the decision has already been taken. Nonetheless, maybe naively, I hope that it will actually be considered it in your final decision – especially as this urgency means that I have to take time out of my final exam studies to respond to you. However, I really care about Harvard Business School and I strongly disagree with your suggested solution – despite having defended it in this evening’s debate – so please find my reasoning below.
First of all, to effectively evaluate whether grade disclosure should be introduced, it is important to clarify the core objective of the MBA.
MBAs is a professional academic course, thus it is important that the MBA programme adds value to a student’s previous career so that companies benefit significantly more from hiring the student post-MBA rather than pre-MBA. This added-value is done mainly through academics and career reflection – extra-curriculae activities are complementary but not the fundamental drivers.
In recent years, MBAs have lost popularity both in terms of demand (firms which are developing their staff in-house) and supply (candidates who can pursue their careers without MBAs). Regardless of rankings, HBS is still considered as the best MBA in the world, however it is drawing down upon its brand equity at present and this is the time when we need reverse that trend to start building on it again.
To ensure that MBAs remain a ‘must’ as opposed to ‘nice to have’ degree, it is important for students to concentrate on both developing their skillset and establishing their true career interest. An over-emphasis on either aspect could be detrimental to the business school’s reputation on the long run as companies do not want to employ students without skills or those who just stay 2 years within their organisation.
The grade disclosure is being considered as a solution for the students’ perceived lack of focus on academics over the past few years. I don’t believe this proposed solution and will address those which were not addressed in your letter of 21st November.
First, the grade disclosure will not achieve the targeted objective of increasing academic focus. From discussions with faculty, the RC year, under the new ‘learning team’ system, is much more diligent than previously. The learning team model, seems to be effective in sustaining the high level of preparation students have at the start of the program. Hence, grade disclosure for the RC year would not only be redundant, but will be detrimental to career reflection as students as their ‘self reflection’ time is eroded to favour studying. Unfortunately, it is precisely in the RC year that such reflection needs to take place.
The true problem of lack of focus on studies lies in the EC year. However, as most firms which attach any importance to grade disclosure will recruit by December of the EC year, only the grades of the first year will be of relevance.
Second, the context of the work environment has changed compared to 1997 when the grade disclosure was last in use. The work place is much more collaborative – even in aggressive environments like investment banks (c.f. cases in RC year) – hence, leaders such as coach Knight are much less likely to thrive than those like coach K.. The introduction of grade disclosure will revert the present collaborative, ‘safe learning’ classroom environment to the aggressive one of the past; this has been confirmed by professors who taught in both eras. Moreover, the team-working experience might also be jeopardised as students will be not be ready to compromise as their team exercise will count towards their final disclosed grade – not a good way for the academic curriculum to develop the team working experience. Nurturing such an environment for two years will develop aggressive leaders, which are no longer welcome in the workplace.
Third, part of HBS’ reputation resides in its capacity to attract the best (virtual circle). In this present state of the Generation X world, grade disclosure is very likely to deter many of the best. There are two main reasons why individuals come to business school: enhance their present career or change career. For career-switchers, the same issues will arise as pre-1998: grade disclosure will put them at a disadvantage because, however hard they work, they are unlikely to surpass a fellow hard working student who has worked in that field for 4 years prior business school. Thus, career-switchers will favour a non-grade disclosure business school. For career-enhancers, grade disclosure will not entice students to stretch themselves and choose different subjects to those they came across in their field pre-MBA. Moreover, there is little rationale for them to come to business school (increasingly high opportunity cost) and take the risk of coming out of with grades which show that they are average or poor compared to other students, while in their firm they were stars… This is particularly true today, when unlike in 1997, it is no longer necessary for young professionals to go to business school to have successful careers in their firms. Hence, in spite of its brand, HBS will deter many of the best candidates if it introduces grade disclosure as such a policy does not offer a safe learning environment. I would be particularly concerned with Stanford, which Standards do not stop the students from having their non-disclosure norms.
As a result, not only will grade disclosure not achieve the desired objective but will remove from the HBS experience what attracts the best candidates and develops leaders that fit in the modern workplace.
I have three suggestions of solutions to ensure that we achieve a greater commitment to academics whilst building the HBS brand and experience.
First, I would like to suggest that the faculty revises its policy with regards to the teaching staff. It is undeniable that there are disparities across the faculty in terms of quality of Professors in the ‘case study’ environment. I am not denying there great research competencies, but the case method requires skills that some member of the teaching staff do not possess. This lack of skill affects the classes tremendously which, in turn, affects the students’ motivation to study. This issue of not offering the best staff for students is supported by members of the HBS faculty such as John Quelch in his article in The Chronicle Review (Volume 52, Issue 15, Page B19):
“All too often, [TOP PROFESSORS] are relieved to delegate the chore of instruction to adjunct Professors, creating a two-tier faculty system and a neat division of labor that serves student interests poorly.”
Anecdotally, all the RCs I have spoken to would agree that they are more enticed to study harder when the class is directed by the better Professors.
Second, when talking to ECs, where the lack of focus on academics is most prevalent, they appear to believe that faculty do not mind them not studying and that there is an underlying understanding that it is ‘alright’ not to study. It would appear to me that the most obvious and immediate course of action is to promptly inform the students that is NOT alright to let the academics be the lowest priority. In spite of what the administration might think, you are dealing with mature, responsible, grown-up adults who will respond, if treated as such. Moreover, to be impactful, I would suggest that you make the ECs realise by themselves that there is a problem: e.g., show them the video of two classes: first year and second year and ask them to explain why the dynamics are not the same.They will come to the conclusion that they do not work as well and that as a result their learning experience is diminished.
Finally, having introdu
ced the two ‘carrots’ above, one could introduce a ‘stick’. Suggestions of sticks could be the following:
Professors walk out of classes where they feel the students have not prepared
Send students out of the class if they have not prepared; if they are thrown out more than 3 times in a term, they are given a 4.
Finally, judging from the stories of alums, faculty of today is much less confrontational with students than faculty was 10-15 years ago. If faculty were to start “grilling” the unprepared students as opposed to avoiding them, the resulting effect on academic rigor would be much bigger than grade disclosure. It seems that grade disclosure is an easy way out, and unless the faculty changes their attitude, grade non-disclosure will just be substituted by grade inflation.
These alternatives are only but a few that can be suggested. It is possible to have a positive impact on the academic experience of HBS students whilst ensuring HBS develops the leaders who are needed in the present world.
Hence, I strongly feel the suggested solution to the lack of focus on academics, needs to be addressed in a different manner. Grade disclosure has negative impact on the leaders that are developed by HBS for the modern workplace. Alternative solutions to grade disclosure are available and would ensure adequacy with not only the recruiters’ needs, but also the students’. Let’s not revert to old practices because we had them previously and we feel comfortable with them: the world has changed, and HBS needs to adapt to develop leaders of the world we are living in, not that of the past.
If students are so up in arms it is that they sense, without formulating it effectively, that grade disclosure will have a negative impact on the HBS brand – and nobody wants to see it erode further! HBS has the brightest intellectual capita in the world, so let’s find the appropriate solution together and enhance the Harvard Business School academic experience in a creative and innovative way, which is most appropriate for our modern world.
Dylan Bourguignon (NH)